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What the Heck is a Dolmen?

February 20, 2011

What the heck is a dolmen?

The Poulnabrone Dolmen - aka a backyard fort for Pebbles and Bam Bam???

Really, what the heck is it?  For the second year in a row, Minooka T.A.P. is going to visit some dolmens during our adventure, so this is the second year in a row that we have to ask the question – What the heck is a dolmen?

You can look at tons of pictures of them all over the internet if you want, but if you’re too tired to click over to Google, I’ll go ahead and describe the one we saw in Ireland last March.  Picture a huge open field.  It’s kinda hilly, not mountains or anything like that, just kinda hilly.  And even though it’s Ireland, there’s not much green anywhere, not one single tree anywhere to be seen, and the grass, which is pretty sparse to begin with, is more of a greebrowbleh color.   And yes, we do think that Crayola should add greebrowbleh to the big crayon box.

The terrain around us looked like nothing you’ve ever seen anywhere before.  It was like walking around on the moon, with gray limestone rock everywhere – covering everything, but eroded away by eons of wind and rain right there near the west coast of Ireland, leaving these oddly shaped fingers of rock that you climb over to get anywhere.

Okay, none of that describes a dolmen, but we’re getting there.  Bear with us while we set the stage.

We parked our bus about half a mile from the Poulnabrone Dolmen, which left us with a surreal hike through this rocky, moon-like area known as The Burren.  A series of dry stone walls cut through the landscape, and a handful of informative signs helped us understand what we were looking at.  As we came around the corner, we saw what looked like a prehistoric garage.  That’s be best way I can describe it, because it actually looks like a place where Fred Flintstone might park his Lincoln Rockinental.  (Like what I did there with the Flinstone car/rock thing?)

Why are they called dry stone walls? Uh, stones stacked into a wall, with nothing wet like mortar, mud, or cement to hold it together.

About five or six stones made up the “walls” of this garage.  I’d have to guess they were about six or seven feet tall, and about a foot or so thick.  Now, when I say wall, that’s exactly what I mean.  These were the perfect stones to use to make a wall for a stoneage house – flat and huge.  They’d be the perfect rocks for you to try and skip across a lake, if by ‘lake’ we mean ocean and by ‘you’ we mean the Jolly Green Giant.  Yet, somehow, these people, who lived in this area of Ireland 6,000 years ago – which is a few millennia before anyone was able to make a harness strong enough to allow animals pull big heavy rocks and about 5,950 years before heavy construction equipment was invented – managed to drag those gigantic rocks from “Bodb Derg knows where”* and then tip them up on their sides.

That alone is baffling enough to wrap your 21st century brain around, but then when you consider that they saved the biggest rock for last, your brain might fizzle fizzle pop pop just trying to imagine how they moved, lifted, and placed these

The "hole of sorrows" out there in the distance, looking kinda... well... sad.

enormous slabs of limestone on top of one another.  The last rock, which had to be 12 feet long, six feet wide, and a foot and a half thick, is placed on top of the wall, like a roof.  We’re guessing that was so Fred and Barney could work on their Harley Davistones even on a rainy day.
I guess the ‘what the heck is a dolmen’ question isn’t as mysterious as ‘how did they do that’, because when the site was excavated by archeologists back in the 1980s, they found the site was a stone age tomb.  Remains of around 25 neolithic people were inside.  That might explain the name of the place – Poulnabrone, an Irish word meaning “hole of sorrows.”  There were a few clues inside that let us know how people lived 60 centuries ago.  Most of them, including the women and children, had endured a considerable amount of violence during their lives – fractured skulls, tips of ancient stone weapons broken off into leg bones, and some very young bodies were found in the tomb.  There were stone axes, bone jewelry, quartz crystals, and some pottery inside as well.

However, even though Fred Flintstone worked hard every day working the brontosaurus-crane at Mr. Slate’s quarry, not a single one of the bodies was found with a bulldozer license in their wallet, so we still can’t figure out quite how they built them.

The moonish rocks beneath our feet as we hiked through the burren. To give you an idea of scale, the bottom of the picture to the top is about 2 feet.

The Emerald Isle isn’t the only place these structures can be found.  Similar sites have been uncovered in Korea, India, Jordan, Germany, France, and… you guessed it… Portugal and Spain.  This June we’ll be visiting Anta Grande do Zambujeiro, a dolmen that’s similar to the one we saw in Ireland, only it’s older and bigger.  On top of that, we’ll get to see a few other sites built during the same time period, including a mysterious circle of menhirs (or standing stones), a cavern full of neolithic cave paintings, and another dolmen that was turned into a very small Christian chapel.

Okay, so maybe we did know what the heck a dolmen is, but this year in Portugal, maybe we can find the answer to – How the heck did Fred and Barney make that thing?
*Bodb Derg is the king of the ancient Irish gods
Seeing thes ancient dolmens for the second year in a row is one of the things we’re looking forward to most on this year’s trip.  What are you excited about seeing on a TAP trip?   Use the comments section to let us know.

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25 Comments leave one →
  1. Claire Dobry permalink
    February 21, 2011 6:39 pm

    I am excited to go and see the small towns on our trip. I also wanted to say Ha! to the Ireland kids. We get to see an older and bigger dolmen!!! Oh, also I did like your Freddy Flinstone reffrences and your crayola comment! I thought over all it was a good article.

  2. Danielle permalink
    February 22, 2011 8:22 pm

    That looks kinda spooky the pictures the rock wall was cool if I tried that it would fall over 🙂 the dolmens are cool to I’d be scared to go in one because it would be so old pluss it could fall:0 scary

    • February 23, 2011 8:26 am

      Danielle – we won’ go inside one. The one in Ireland had ropes around it, so no one got too close. We were only able to get about 20 feet away.

  3. February 23, 2011 1:58 pm

    dolmens sound interesting could you put anymore info about dolmens

  4. February 23, 2011 1:59 pm

    these pictures look kinda weird but awsome also so think about another cool topic cause i love reading about monooka tap

    • February 23, 2011 2:09 pm

      There are a bunch of articles on here about a ton of cool topics. If there’s something from one of our trips you want to know more about, suggest a topic and we’ll write an article.

  5. February 23, 2011 1:59 pm

    That is really cool!!! Hope I can go on a trip and see something like that. That would make me want to go on even more trips.

    • February 23, 2011 2:10 pm

      In your 8th grade year we will see a bunch of cool stuff that’s just as old and strange as the dolmens.

  6. February 23, 2011 2:00 pm

    I wanna go to Ireland sometime and see those!!!!!!!! they look really interesting……………. and cool 🙂

    • February 23, 2011 2:10 pm

      Ireland was awesome, but you can see them in Spain, Portugal, France, England, Korea, India… and a gazillion other places too.

    • February 24, 2011 2:13 pm

      i agree meh too

  7. February 23, 2011 2:02 pm

    wow that’s really cool how they were formed also how they look too!

  8. February 23, 2011 2:05 pm

    I think that crayola should make greebrowbleh a color.! Would the stonehenge be considered a dolmer.?Is it safe going under?

    • February 23, 2011 2:13 pm

      Jose – There are other old stone structures that are like dolmens, all those old stone things are called megoliths. Stone Henge is a megolith.

      We didn’t go under it. There’s a rope around it, so you can’t get too close. But, if you think about it, it’s been there for thousands of years and nothing’s knocked it over yet.

  9. Jessica Schroth permalink
    February 23, 2011 4:50 pm

    That is really cool and interesting! When I am in 8th grade I hope I can go there and see the dolmens. Was it bigger than you thought it would be?

    • February 23, 2011 7:38 pm

      Jessica – They were soooooo cool. It was huge. If you look at that first picture of it, imagine this. Probably 20 people could stand in there, with 20 more people sitting on their shoulders. I don’t know why you would do that, but you could.

  10. Adriana Balderas permalink
    February 23, 2011 5:01 pm

    it was pretty cool that there was thick stone everywhere. How did they get there? How did they make that house with stones that big. I thought that was amazing

    • February 23, 2011 7:40 pm

      Adriana – That’s the big question. No one knows for sure how they made them. They didn’t have bulldozers or and horses that could pull the big rocks, so somehow people did it on their own. It’s one of the mysteries of the world how they did that!!!

  11. Abigail Belluomini permalink
    February 23, 2011 7:54 pm

    That is so cool!!! They sound so intresting!!! It would be so cool to go underneath that. I want to go to Ireland and see those.

  12. carli cortina permalink
    February 23, 2011 9:10 pm

    A dolmen looks like the thing in england. The whats it called??? Dolmens are man-made structures, commonly used for shelter. They were used as walls to protect or shield from outsiders.

  13. February 24, 2011 2:12 pm

    kwelz i liked it even better the second time

  14. ivan contreras permalink
    February 24, 2011 2:13 pm

    awesome 😀

  15. February 25, 2011 1:55 pm

    i wonder how the rocks fell down? and why didn’t they just bury them?

    • February 25, 2011 2:36 pm

      They couldn’t bury people. The ground is all stone – no where to dig a hole.

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